Jackie Rogers, a Tough-talking Fashion Designer, Dies at 90
Services will be held Thursday for Jackie Rogers, the tough-talking and brash fashion designer with a colorful career, who died Tuesday in hospice at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. She was 90.
The cause of death was congestive heart failure, said a company spokesman. A small private ceremony will be held at Sharon Gardens in Valhalla, New York, at 10:30 a.m.
Rogers’ storied career covered a multitude of vocations. She was a muse of Coco Chanel, a big-band singer, Hollywood starlet, New York model and a fashion designer, dressing such celebrities as Lee Radziwill, Barbara Walters, Christine Baranski, Condoleezza Rice, Courtney Love, Nicole Kidman, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Sammy Davis Jr. She would frequently pepper her conversations with “Did I tell you about…” and would regale listeners with stories about her adventures at El Morocco, auditioning for Cole Porter, dating Davis Jr. or modeling for Chanel.
She had a big personality, spoke up at inopportune times, enjoyed an eventful life and was unapologetic about everything. Her collections, however, showed refined talent and her sexy, often bias-cut clothes were an exercise in restraint.
She was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Feb. 24, 1932 to a father who was a professional gambler and a mother who designed hats for the Chic Gown Shop. Rogers started designing her own clothes from the age of 14. At 16, her modeling career started with a $55-per-week summer job at Priscilla’s of Boston.
Her enrollment at the University of Miami was cut short after she decided to return to Boston to marry Alan Balter. By 1952, she parachuted out of their marriage, writing a check to herself and moving to the Mayflower Hotel in Manhattan. When she was not asking Seventh Avenue elevator operators who was hiring models, Rogers studied with Stella Adler and even once auditioned for Cole Porter. As a fit model, she told designers like Geoffrey Beene what was right and what was wrong with their clothes.
During this time in New York City, she would hang out at nightclubs such as El Morocco, make connections and meet a lot of famous people. After meeting Sammy Davis Jr. at a fashion show at the Waldorf Hotel, she became romantically involved with him. But the hard-partying Rat Pack life in Las Vegas was not for her. Rogers recalled in a 2014 interview, “’Let me out of here!’ As crazy as I might have been, I wasn’t that crazy.”
In 1960, Rogers moved to Europe, where she claimed her life began. She settled in Rome, where she fell in love with “the most gorgeous man in Europe, this divine Italian prince.” She appeared in Federico Fellini’s classic film “8 1/2” where she delivered the devastating summation of its central character: “You’re finished. You’ve got nothing left to say.”
A shopping excursion to Paris changed the direction of her life. She bought her first Chanel suit for around $600, and as she stood for the first fitting found herself thinking, “It would be nice to work here.” When she heard Chanel needed models, she lined up an interview, and Coco Chanel hired her on the spot.
So incomparable was Rogers that when she modeled for Coco Chanel in Paris in the early ’60s, the designer dubbed her “The Cowboy.” At the start of what would be two years of modeling for Chanel, Rogers experienced the designer’s exactitude backstage just moments before she was supposed to step out. Chanel started “ripping” at Rogers clothes, “pulling and shoving to reset everything.” Rogers once explained in an interview that after she started to cry, Chanel told her, “I do this for me, me. That’s why it’s not for anybody else.”
Rogers, who had developed a reputation for being a sometimes playwright and always playgirl, ran with a highly social crowd, attending Fellini parties in Rome or aboard Aristotle Onassis’ yacht. Traveling around Europe in 1960 with in-the-know personalities like Stavros Niarchos, Rex Harrison, David Lean, Kay Kendall and others, Rogers said, “Honey, this is what it’s all about. I ain’t ever going back to New York.”
Brassy and at times bewildering, the dark-eyed Rogers once explained, “When someone asks me what I think, I tell them exactly what’s on my mind. That’s what people loved about me in Europe — that I wasn’t full of baloney.”
Former chief theater critic for the New York Times Ben Brantley recalled Tuesday how Rogers “brought an electric current, dangerous and exciting, into any room she inhabited. She was vital, for sure, and she liked to shock.” He said, “I remember having drinks with her at the Carlyle once, when she saw a portly English aristocrat she knew across the room. ‘Lord [x]!’ she said, in that megaphone voice of hers that ricocheted off the walls. ‘What a porker! Can you imagine crawling into the crib with that one?’”
Brantley continued, “She carried with her the heady perfume of the Rome and Paris of her salad days, in the late 50s and early 60s, the era of ‘La Dolce Vita’ and the last act of Coco Chanel. She picked up a lot of Chanel’s fashion sensibility, both in how she designed and how she dressed. At the same, she was always, emphatically, American — straightforward, allergic to pretension, alarmingly energetic. It made sense that Chanel called her ‘the cowboy.’”
Never one of the great successes of her era, Rogers still lived a jam-packed life. In addition to being a model, she worked as a showgirl, a stockbroker, a wife “for two minutes,” a starlet under studio contract and the companion of some of the world’s wealthiest men. She was also the proprietor of a Madison Avenue barber shop that became a hangout for trendy stars like Nicholson, Hoffman and Al Pacino.
But sometimes Rogers’ forthrightness could be a liability. She told WWD, “I used to think if I told the truth, I could not suffer the consequences. I learned different. I am terribly rebellious. I hate conforming.”
For a long stretch in the ’70s, Rogers was part of “a clique of heavy-duty record and film industry types” that was omnipresent at Studio 54, never worrying about tomorrow, Rogers explained in a 1984 interview. Recalling how the drug of choice — cocaine — was “a substitute for success,” she said, “You take enough of it and you sit around all night and tell how great you are. The only problem is you’re the only one who knows it.”
During her decades-long career, Rogers had a practical side, too. In 1971, she introduced a 12-month-a-year collection aptly named Jackie Rogers Too. Geared for stores in the Sunbelt, the more affordable assortment included lightweight jersey styles and cotton sportswear for shoppers who were always looking for something new. All in all, she never lost the joie de vivre that enamored Chanel. “I’m busy living, not thinking about myself. Life is too short. Live it like it’s your last moment,” Rogers said.
When a photo of Lee Radziwill wearing a while organza Jackie Rogers blouse appeared on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily in 1982, Rogers got her shot of fame.
By her own declaration, Rogers was partial to talented, energetic women with great style. In the high-flying ’80s, when she ran a New York boutique, her shoppers favored unabashed glamour-girl looks for nights on the town and body-clinging silhouettes — day or night. Picture a slim black velvet dress open at the waist and wrapping around the hips with an attached panne velvet sash. As Rogers explained to WWD in 1984, “Women want to look very glamorous and very sexy. I don’t understand all of these aerobic classes and taking care of the body, if you’re not going to show it off.”
Rogers opened her Palm Beach salon in the ’70s. Her Lexington Avenue salon opened in 2004, and her East Hampton store opened that same year. She also had a store in Southampton.
When she opened the 500-square-foot store in East Hampton, Rogers told WWD, “The Hamptons is a very glamorous place these days. It’s really happening. It’s becoming the Hollywood of the East Coast in a way, and everyone in the music industry is coming out here.”
Hints of her colorful past were evident on the walls of her East Hampton store where her photographs of Marcello Mastroianni, Laurence Olivier, Chanel, Nicholson, Andy Warhol and others offered a glimpse into her life.
“She was full force and right on target,” said Stan Herman on Tuesday. “She had an overview about her life given to so few of us. She became famous quite early. She was a well-respected designer and had her own stores.”
He said they used to take the train out to the Hamptons and she would have her dachshund under her arm. “She was old-fashioned fashion. Her life was a big movie, and she lived it in a big way,” said Herman.
She was best known for her women’s collection. She told WWD that the only reason she got into the women’s business at all was on the advice of Bill Blass, who told her if she wanted to create a big brand, she needed to go into womenswear.
“Rogers knows just how to make a woman feel terrific,” one WWD reviewer wrote in 1997. “How else could she feel in one of those sensually draped charmeuse or bias-cut jersey gowns?”
But in 2017, Rogers decided to relaunch a men’s collection, some four decades after opening Jackie Rogers for Men, the barbershop boutique (that did haircuts and sold clothing) on Madison Avenue that counted some of Hollywood’s biggest stars as customers.
“All the guys would come and wait. Warren Beatty, Michael Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Peter O’Toole was my boyfriend and Al Pacino was a customer, too, but he had a terrible body, very short legs,” Rogers told WWD in 2017.
Among the first to receive the new Jackie Rogers men’s pieces was her old friend Nicholson, for whom she made a safari-style two-pocket shirt in burlap.
While relaunching her menswear, she unveiled an exhibition of “famous and infamous” friends in a space, “The Gallery Next to Jackie Rogers” in Palm Beach. There she exhibited photos of everyone from Olivier to Nicholson and Beatty to Jackie Kennedy, Chanel and Radziwill. She even held a fashion show of her new women’s collection, and the event served as a benefit for the animals at A Second Chance Puppies & Kittens Rescue.
In 2018, Rogers found herself in the news again. She was involved in an ongoing battle with a former executive over who owned the business. The designer sued the Hudson 28 Holdings LLC for an illegal lockout, but it was Rasheem Riley, who claimed that Rogers had given him ownership of the company and had locked her out of her offices at 330 West 38th Street. The case was never resolved.
To this day Rogers still had an online business that was operating and handled private clients. She closed her Palm Beach store in 2021.
Rogers is survived by her nephew, Jonathan Lewis, from Boston.
Rogers was an animal lover and over the years had several dogs and cats. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in Rogers’ name to one’s local ASPCA.
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